Fiona Brown wears a locket holding two photographs of her chubby-cheeked son, Lloyd, one taken shortly after he was born and the other at five months, around the last time she saw him. Lloyd was taken into foster care 48 hours after he was born in February; for legal reasons, details of the court proceedings and why he couldn't stay with Brown cannot be reported. She was able to visit him with his foster parents, but hasn't seen him since July, when he went to live with the family who hope to adopt him.
"God, I wish the outcome was so different, because he's such a cutie, you know?" Brown, 38, says. She's sitting in Starbucks in Lincoln two weeks before Christmas and her anguish is obvious. Losing Lloyd was "absolutely devastating". Yet she says she's glad for his sake that he was able to move through the system swiftly. "Lingering is not good for anybody, is it? They always say 'little children don't bond' – of course they do." If he is adopted, any contact Brown has with him will depend on the outcome of the court order. As a minimum, she would get one letter a year updating him on her progress, and could write an annual letter to the family and Lloyd.
The speed with which Lloyd was placed with prospective adopters is partly down to Brown's agreement to take part in a pilot scheme in Lincolnshire run by – the government organisation responsible for children's interests in family proceedings – with the aim of cutting the time they spend in the care system. More than half of those in care proceedings in England are under five, and 27% are under one, so a lengthy case can make up a huge proportion of their young lives.
Cafcass normally only gets involved when court proceedings have been issued by local authorities, with their staff – fully qualified social workers – acting as children's guardians. But with the Cafcass Plus scheme, it's been working with children's services at the pre-proceedings stage, trying to improve case preparation and, where safe, help divert cases from proceedings completely. Workers take on the role of "family court advisers", but with no court appointment to the role, parents have to consent to Cafcass's involvement at this stage.
Cafcass Plus was devised in 2009 by the organisation's chief executive, Anthony Douglas, as part of its response to care applications soaring in the aftermath of the Baby P case. There were 11,064 in England in 2012-13 – a rise of more than 70% from 2008-09.
"We needed to find some way of managing that number of cases to avoid backlogs of children in the courts," Douglas explains. "Delay is pernicious. Every day matters for a child if you're in the wrong place – whether you're being neglected at home or you're in an interim placement and you don't know whether you're coming or going. It's demoralising; children lose hope."
Versions of Cafcass Plus have been , where 40% of cases in a 2011-13 pilot were diverted from court, and in London's tri-borough councils (Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea), where a one-year pilot in 2012/13 cut the length of care proceedings from a median of 49 weeks to 27 weeks in the scheme's first nine months. Pilots have also run in , Plymouth and Suffolk.
It was initially hoped the Cafcass Plus process would become mainstream, but the chaotic nature of so many of the families involved in care proceedings means take-up by parents isn't high enough, Douglas says, and the rate of care applications means such a model could never be fully resourced. Events have also overtaken it to some extent, with a 26-week time limit for care proceedings under the new Public Law Outline; Douglas hopes learning from the pilots will be taken on as other local authorities respond to the challenge, and says there's evidence it's happening already.
In Lincolnshire, the scheme focuses on unborn children, where a parent has either had a previous child taken into care, or has a conviction or caution for hurting a child. One key benefit, according to Janice Spencer, Lincolnshire county council's assistant director of children's services, and Cafcass case manager Yvonne Shearwood, on secondment to the council, has been the chance to make an early start assessing extended family members who might become "connected person" carers for the child.
"Everything is frontloaded, so actually when the baby's born, you know exactly what your plan is and the baby can be placed with a relative immediately," Spencer says.
Previously the process would have been slower: "We'd wait, we'd issue [proceedings], then we'd think 'oh, there's Aunty Janice over there, let's go and do a little assessment'. That would take 14 weeks, [with the] child in foster care."
Of the 18 completed cases in the pilot, seven have seen children going to connected person carers, and four children have stayed with their parents under a care or supervision order. The remaining seven children were placed for adoption, and a further three cases were diverted from proceedings. The average completion time for a court case dealt with under Cafcass Plus is 15 weeks. Around three-quarters of parents approached signed up to the process.
"It has made a significant reduction in the length of the hearings," says family court judge Heather Swindells QC.
Shearwood says: "I cannot speak highly enough of this scheme, in terms of justice for children. Some children were placed with prospective adopters within six months. In the old days, sometimes we would be going on for two years."
For some, like Lauren Taylor, who was involved with Cafcass Plus with her daughter Maisie, now seven months old, the scheme has been "absolutely fantastic". Complications with her partner, James Stewart, who had an older child involved in care proceedings, were ironed out: she stayed with his sister (assessed by social workers before the birth) until he completed courses demonstrating he had made changes in his life and behaviour. Taylor, Maisie and Stewart now live happily together.
Theirs is a happy ending, but Cafcass Plus stresses that the process is about putting the needs of the child first, even if that's tough for parents. Asked if there have been any negative outcomes, Shearwood replies: "I think … families can feel kind of bulldozed through the system, because it is quick. Parents can sometimes feel 'hold on a minute, I need more time to prove myself'. But I'm not sure how you overcome that so that it doesn't detract from the focus on the child."
Brown understands what she means. "It would have been better for me to have been able to prolong the process," she says, "so that I could have righted the wrongs of what had happened in the past, and had a chance to show them that I've changed over the things that there were issues over." She has kept the clothes she bought for Lloyd on eBay, returned to her by the foster family, and has an engraved bracelet in a box for him, and a gold cross. "It is good for the children but not for the parents."
All case study names have been changed